Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Kazyonny Ravvin

KAZYONNY RAVVIN (Rus. "an official rabbi"; Heb. expression, rav mi-ta'am), title of the officials elected by the communities of Russia between 1857 and 1917 in accordance with the instructions of the government. Their official function was "to supervise public prayers and religious ceremonies so that the permanent regulations be respected; to regularize the laws of the Jews and clarify the problems connected with them; to educate them in the true spirit of the law." In practice the "official rabbis" represented their communities before the authorities. They delivered patriotic speeches, mostly in Russian, on festivals and on the birthdays of the czars. They supervised Jewish government schools, administered the oath to those who had been enlisted into the Russian army, and kept the records of births, marriages, and deaths in their communities. The institution of kazyonny ravvin was linked with the attempts of the Russian government to influence and control Jewish communal activities. As early as in the "Jewish constitution" of 1804 it was stated that, as from 1812, only those who could read and write Russian, Polish, or German would be authorized to officiate as rabbis. In the "Jewish legislation" of 1835, the rabbis' functions were defined as "to guide the Jews in the fulfillment of their moral duties, the observance of the state's laws, and obedience to the authorities." The rabbi was to officiate at circumcision, marriage, and burial ceremonies, and keep the records of births and deaths. In 1836, when the government decided to censor the books of the Jews, the task was imposed on the rabbis of the large communities, to whom books were presented for inspection by their owners.

With the growth of the Haskalah movement, the maskilim began to call for the appointment of rabbis who had a general education also. Projects were advanced for the establishment of a body of official rabbis after the example of the *Consistory in France. It soon became evident, however, that there were no men suitable for such positions among the Russian Jews. The suggestion of inviting "enlightened" rabbis from Western Europe was rejected on political grounds. As an exception, the election of "enlightened" rabbis was approved for Riga (Abraham Neumann, 1854) and Odessa (Simeon Aryeh *Schwabacher, 1860). In 1847 two government seminaries for the training of rabbis in the spirit of Haskalah were established in Vilna and Zhitomir, financed from the revenues of the *candle tax. In 1857, on the occasion of the graduation of the first classes of these institutions, a law was passed which declared that henceforward the Jewish communities were only to "appoint such rabbis who had completed their studies in the government seminaries, and the government Jewish schools of the second grade, the general schools, high, secondary, or district schools."

The application of the law encountered opposition from the communities. Poor salaries were granted to the rabbis thus appointed, and since they were dependent on reelection by their communities every few years their influence was insignificant. The maskilim called on the government to impose the election of such rabbis on the communities or to appoint them itself and pay their salaries so that they should be independent of their congregants. These demands, which were at times supported by the local authorities, were rejected by the central government with the argument that they contradicted the fundamental right of the Jewish communities to elect their own rabbis. The government rabbinical seminaries did not achieve their objective, and in 1873 were closed down and converted into government schools for Jewish teachers. In practice, every Jew who had completed six, or even four classes of a Russian secondary school could present his candidature for the post of kazyonny ravvin.

The Jewish communities generally regarded the institution of official rabbis with hostility and endeavored to restrict their activities as far as possible. On many occasions, men without any knowledge of Judaism and its contents were appointed to this position, which they merely considered a sinecure. At times, even the moral conduct of the incumbents of this office was doubtful. The true religious influence within the communities continued to be wielded by the rabbis of the traditional style whom the Russian government recognized, though not officially, under the title of "spiritual rabbis." Jewish folklore abounds in descriptions of the official rabbi as covetous, an ignoramus, and one who despises the values of the Jewish religion. Their connections with the authorities, and at times even with secret police, occasionally led them to be suspected as informers. At the same time, the official rabbinate became a source of livelihood for many Jewish maskilim, some of whom elevated this function to the level of a valuable public service (Z.S. Minor, in Minsk and later in Moscow; A.A. Pumpianski, in Riga; J.L. *Kantor, in Libava (Liepaja), Vilna, and Riga; J. *Mazeh, in Moscow; H.Y. Katzenelson, in Oriol; I.B. *Levner, in Lugansk; S.Z. Luria, in Kiev; and also *Shalom Aleichem, in Lubny, 1880–83).

With the growth of nationalism and Zionism, Zionist circles, with the slogan "Conquest of the Communities," attempted to convert the function of kazyonny ravvin into a channel for nationalist influence, and in many communities leaders and activists of the movement were elected to this office through the influence of the Zionists. They attempted to influence their communities in a nationalist direction, to strengthen Jewish education, and to educate the youth and bring it nearer to Judaism. This was a thankless function, however, and its incumbents were compelled to tread a tightrope between the czarist authorities and their nationalist conscience. Rabbis of this category included Vladimir *Tiomkin (Yekaterinoslav), Shemariah *Levin (Grodno, Yekaterinoslav), Menahem *Sheinkin (Balta, 1901–05), Y.N. Vilenski (Nikolayev, 1903–05), and Mordecai Rabinsohn (Bobruisk). J. Mazeh, Shemariah Levin, Y.N. Vilenski, A.I. Freudenberg (Kremenchug), and Isaac *Schneersohn (Chernigov) described their public activities as official rabbis in their memoirs.


A. Margulis, Voprosy, yevreyskoy zhizni (1889), 168–92; Yu. Hessen, in: YE, 13 (c. 1910), 226–31.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.